California State University, Long Beach

Women's Lives, Women's Work 1900-1960


This series is comprised of a range of women whose work and lives are not easily classified. With only one exception, they constitute a cohort born in the period from 1885 to 1900, and although they all eventually ended up in southern California, their work, family and community lives often played out elsewhere. Like women of that era, some worked outside their homes only rarely after they married and their lives revolved mainly around their families; others worked in various jobs to support themselves and their families. By and large, work was a necessity for them, not a choice, and the jobs available to them were limited. Like most working class women of their generation, they rarely had the education, skills or resources to exercise many options. Beatrice NeView's work experience is typical of urban Black women of her generation who invariably worked as domestics or in laundries. On the other hand, both Black and White poor women in the rural south often worked on tenant farms. Regardless of race, it was not unusual for them to begin to work in the fields as young girls, as revealed in the lives of Eliza Harrison and Lottie Lee Spharler. The hard lives and difficult choices that poor, working class women made is perhaps revealed most dramatically in the account of Elizabeth Anderson, whose fear of repeated pregnancies led her to seek twelve abortions. The lives of other working class women were not always as difficult and some, like Russian Jewish immigrant Dora Rosenzweig, were able to exercise more choices. Although she had worked as a cigar maker in Chicago since her teens, she later followed her husband to Montana where they staked a claim. They left Montana after about ten years and tried their hands at various ventures, including farming and running a resort in Michigan. Victoria Cassiles and Sadie Kastleman, by contrast, worked outside the home only rarely. Rather, each was intimately involved in the life of their respective communities. For Cassiles that was the Mexican neighborhood of Santa Monica, where her father had laid down roots following the Mexican Revolution; and for Kastleman it was the Jewish community in various southern cities where she lived, especially her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Sofia Zamora's life also revolved mainly around her family although she did work in garment factories for a dozen or so years after her children were grown before opening her own dressmaking business out of her home. Community activities figured prominently in the life of Barbara Kalish, too, a woman raised in a more privileged household some three decades after most of these women. In an unusual twist, her active involvement in the PTA and the development of a relationship with another PTA leader is what led to her realization that she was a lesbian. In other words, the nine women included in this series were neither path breakers in their professions nor social activists. They were both typical and, in some cases, atypical of the women of their class, region and period. Regardless of the paths they followed, their oral histories (conducted mainly by students in women's oral history classes at UCLA and CSULB) afford us a glimpse into the lives of ordinary women in the first half of the century.

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